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A queen's duty
on May 4, 2012
A lot of fantasy books end with the defeat of the evil Emperor/King/Dark Lord. Everybody celebrates, and everything is all puppies and flowers.
What most authors don't address is what comes AFTER the bad guy's defeat, and how the good guys rebuild. But that is what Kristin Cashore's "Bitterblue" is all about -- a teenage queen struggling to heal a kingdom still traumatized by her father's rule, with wrenching emotions and likably quirky characters all over the place.
For thirty-five years, Monsea was tormented by the evil King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen, but the kingdom is still haunted by her father -- from the bizarre (a clock with fifteen hours) to the horrific (his kidnapping of children). And every night she sneaks out of the castle to mingle with the commonfolk, including a young Lienid "thief" named Saf, who has an unknown Grace.
But despite Bitterblue's efforts to heal the scars left by Leck, someone is trying to stop her. She's digging too deeply into old crimes committed by her father, and someone -- for some reason -- wants those secrets kept buried. And to stop the queen, this conspiracy will not only strike out at her, but Saf and his friends....
Moral dilemmas, ciphers, rebellions and a quest to find the ugly truth -- "Bitterblue" is very much a thinking person's fantasy novel. It's all about the aftermath of a tyrant's rule, and all the secrets and treachery that are left over once the good guys finally take over... assuming they do. There are always more bad guys waiting, and sometimes there is no good guy to take over the government.
And that is what Bitterblue has to grapple with. This is the kind of heroine we need more of -- she's strong and intelligent, but she's also haunted by memories of her cruel father and her fear of being like him. And she has the right balance of insecurity, strength, fear and determination to make her feel like a real teenage girl who has been thrust into a royal role, not a whiny "rebellious princess."
And the supporting cast is just as good. Katsa and Po are both here, older and a bit wiser, but with plenty of passion and fire -- and we have fun characters like Teddy the truthseeking dictionary-maker, or the snappish librarian Death.
Cashore's elegant, polished prose ("her heart was a bright burst of sadness and shame") has just the right amount of grittiness, with moments of sharp horror when someone reminisces about the bad old days under Leck. And she underlies the slow-burning suspense with a sense of bittersweetness, which sometimes flowers into outright sorrow.
"Bitterblue" is a wrenchingly beautiful piece of work, bringing readers back to the darkly brilliant world of the Gracelings. It was a long time coming, but worth the wait.